Among the famous late 19th and early 20th century Japanese painters were Tetsugoro Yorozu (1885-1927) and Ryusei Kishida (1891-1929). The later was important in the development of Western style painting in Japan. Notable 20th century artists include Taikan Yokohama (1868-1958), Seiho Takeuchi (1864-1942) and Gyokudo Kawai (1873-1957) and ceramic artists Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966) and Rosanjin Kitaoji (1883-1959).

Culture in Japan underwent a rather dramatic transformation during the Meiji period, when Western technologies and concepts of government began to be studied and, where appropriate, adapted for the good of the nation. In the course of this program of modernization, Western-style painting received official sanction, and the government sent a number of painters overseas to study. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“After some decades of rivalry between traditional Japanese-style and the new Western-style painting, the Taisho period (1912-1926) was one in which Western influence on the arts expanded greatly. Painters such as Umehara Ryuzaburo and Yasui Sotaro studied and promoted the styles of Paul Cezanne, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro. In the pre-World War II years, however, Yasui and Umehara cast off the mostly derivative character of Western-style painting in Japan. Umehara stands out for having brought to his work elements of Japanese style, an innovation reversal that encouraged other Western-style painters in Japan to become more interpretative. Yasui (1888-1955) is one of Japan’s best-loved painters. He studied art in Europe and developed a style that came to be called “Yoga” (Western-style oil paintings). He is best known for his still lifes and landcapes.

“The modernizing of Japanese painting continued under the guidance of Yasuda Yukihiko and Kobayashi Kokei. Other painters tried to spread interest in Japanese-style painting by adopting popular themes and giving exhibitions more frequently. It was early in the twentieth century that authentic interest in Western-style sculptures gained momentum, when artists returned to Japan from study abroad. Representative of those sculptors was Ogiwara Morie, who introduced the style of Auguste Rodin and became the pioneer in the modernization of Japanese sculpture. Another influential sculptor was Takamura Kotaro who, as an outstanding poet as well, translated Rodin’s views on art.

Japanese Art After World War II

Following the unproductive years of World War II, art in Japan rapidly regained its originality. Western artistic trends, after the war, found a quick reception in Japan, including such developments as pop and op art, primary structure, minimal art, kinetic art, and assemblage. Having traditionally taken their lead from the art of other cultures, Japanese artists are now finding their own expression as original creators and contributors to the world art community. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Okamoto Taro published his works at the 1953 São Paulo Biennale and 1954 Venice Biennale, and designed the symbol of the international exposition held in Osaka in 1970, “Taiyo no To “(Sun Tower). Ikeda Masuo, who published many printed works full of eroticism and irony, which established his fame worldwide. Ikeda also won the Grand Prix for printmaking at the 1966 Venice Biennale. Additionally, Hirayama Ikuo is highly respected for his pictures depicting Silk Road landscapes filled with fantasy.

“Iwasaki Chihiro, who painted pictures for children, is widely acclaimed for her portraits of them. Most of her pictures were painted for picture books, and these books are published in more than 10 countries. The artist Kusama Yayoi, who began by trying to capture the hallucinations which she suffered from as a child, creates paintings and other works with a repetitive motif of dots and net patterns and has exhibited in galleries and exhibitions all over the world.

“Artists such as Nara Yoshitomo, whose pictures of little girls with glowering eyes depict a world which is both cute and eerie, and Murakami Takashi, who draws on the typically Japanese culture of “manga “and anime for his life-sized figures of young women, etc., are very popular, especially among young people

Japanese avant garde artists who made a name for themselves in the 1960s and 70s included Gempeii Akasegawa, a neo-dadaist prankster who achieved some notoriety when he printed invitations for an exhibition on counterfeit ¥1,000 notes and was arrested; and Shuji Terayama, a performance artist, poet and film maker who made “Emperor Tomato Ketchup”, a film that featured a live chicken being slaughters while a choir of stripping schoolgirls sang “When I grow up I want to be a whore.”

Internationally-recognized contemporary Japanese artist include like Shigeko Kubota, Yayoi Kusama, Shiko Munakata (1903-1975, a printmaker), Yukinori Yanagi, Yasumasa Morimura (mass media artist) and Toshikatsi Endo. Yusaku Kamekura is famous for creating the "visually arresting banner-like design for the new Olympic logo in 1964.

Hundreds of modern Japanese artists are based in New York City. Super Flat is a magazine put out by Takashi Murakami with art from young Japanese artists. Also check the website of NTT Communications Center, a Tokyo gallery of high-tech interactive art sponsored by telecom giant NTT.

Good Websites and Sources: Contemporary Arts in Japan ; National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo ;National Museum of Modern Art Kyoto ; Leonard Foujita ; Leonard Foujita at the National Museum of Modern Art Kyoto ; Yayoi Kusama bio ; Yayoi Kusama bio and art works ; Takashi ;Takashi Murakami Fan Blog ;Takashi Murakami Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles ; Takashi Murakami and Louis Vuitton

Art Galleries in Tokyo Art Galleries are scattered throughout the city. “ Art Space Tokyo” edited by Ashley Rawlings and Craig Mod (Chin Music Press) is reasonably comprehensive guide to art galleries and museums in Tokyo along with interviews with gallery owners and essays by critics. The art scenes in Japan is scattered, financed mainly by the rich and ignored by the government. Happening places include the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, the alternative Project Space Kandada, design-oriented 21_21 Design Sight and the locally minded Nakaochiai Gallery. Websites: Tokyo Art Beat ; Art Space Tokyo


Leonard Foujita

Leonard Foujita is a painter who is best known for being a part of the turn-of-the-century art and literature scene in Paris. The son of a Japanese general, he was born in Tokyo in 1886 and moved to France in 1913. In Paris he hung out with Picasso and Matisse and was good friends with Modigliani, teaching him some judo moves, and Soutine, teaching him how to use a toothbrush. Foujita lived in Paris most of his life, adopted French citizenship and Christianity and took the Western name Leonard (he was born Tsuguharu Fujita) and adopted French spelling for his last name.

A well known eccentric, Foujita he had a distinctive bowl haircut, thick-rimmed round tortoise-shell glasses, a Chaplin mustache and golden gypsy earrings. He went through tunic-wearing phase and liked to wear lampshades no his head at parties, claiming they were the traditional headgear of the Japanese.

Foujita was somewhat a ladies man who had several wives. He once showed up at a party wearing only a loincloth and a cage on his back with his second wife — naked — inside it. His third wife Youki was taken from him by the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos. He was also a skilled self-promoter and once compared his methods to a Citroen campaign, saying “nothing beat the combination of ability and publicity.”

Foujita’s art combined the color and brushwork of Impressionists with the two-dimensional quality of Japanese art. His painting often had cats and women in them somewhere. Foujita was not a starving artist. Capitalizing on a fascination with Japanese art and Japanese culture and life in general, he used both his technical skill and gift of self promotion, to make himself and his art well known. And he worked quite hard and spent quite a bit of time in the studio. His art was popular and brought him considerable amount of money. Now he is not so well known and prints of his art are hard to find.

A tax scandal in the 1930s forced Foujita to leave Paris. After some periods in Brazil, Mexico and Cuba he returned to Japan, where he became a nationalist, giving his “right arm” to the cause and complaining about “strange international perverts” and “Jewish gallery owners” back in France. In some circles the propaganda posters he made for the Japanese government in World War II are better known than his Paris paintings. He spent his last years with his fifth wife in rural France. He died in 1968.

Fujita was known for creamy white pictures of naked women which he achieved by mixing Japanese-made baby powder into the pigments and sprinkling it on half-dry canvases. Fujita was reluctant to divulge his secrets. The discovery of the baby powder technique was made when someone say a container of Japanese baby powder in a photograph of the artist at work.

Book: “A Life of Foujita — The Artist Caught between East and West” by Phyllis Birnbaum (Faber & Faber, 2006)

Yoko Ono

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Yoko Ono with the Japanese
group Love Psychedelico
Yoko Ono is arguably the most famous Japanese person in the world, past or present, and has been so for a long time. Certainly more people outside Japan know her than the current leader of Japan. Her closest rivals for fame, in the United States anyway, the Japanese baseball players Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.

Ono also has always regarded herself an artist and certainly sees herself as more than the widow of John Lennon although she has taken it upon herself met to maintain his legacy and image. Lennon met Ono at a London exhibition of her art and later called her "the world's most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does."

To many Ono is a villain. Summing up the way she is perceived the feminist writer Germaine Greer said in the mid 2000s that Ono “is still hated and reviled....Her enormous wealth can be no consolation for the knee jerk assumption she encounters a hundred times a day that she destroyed Lennon’s gift and broke up the best band there ever was.”

Ono turned 87 in 2020. For a long time she returned to Japan at least once a year. Many years she did charity shows with Japanese artists.

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama was an important artist and scene maker during the Pop Art era in New York. Considered by some people to be one of the first performance artists, she did various kinds of outrageous things in public as well as making paintings, sculptures, experimental films and collages. [Source: New York Times and New Yorker]

Yuri Kageyama of AP wrote: In 2008, Christie's auctioned her work for $5.8 million. A retrospective of her work at the Whitney Museum in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Tate Modern in London drew large crowds. In September 2012, a major exhibition "Eternity of Eternal Eternity" opened in her home town of Matsumoto, complete with polka-dot shuttle buses. "I've always been amazed at Kusama's ability to pick up on and meld current trends in thoroughly original ways," said Lynn Zelevansky, Carnegie Museum of Art director. [Source: Yuri Kageyama, September 8, 2012]

She put circles of paper on people's bodies, and once a horse, in "happening" anti-war performances in the late 1960s, which got some people arrested for obscenity but helped get media attention for her art. While in New York, she befriended artists like Andy Warhol, Georgia O'Keefe and Joseph Cornell, who praised her innovative style. "During her New York years, her work fused Abstract Expressionist, Minimalist and Pop art elements, with an added dash of sexuality and the baseness of bodily functions. She was a precursor of feminist art of the 1970s and much of the work that was produced in the '80s around the AIDS crisis," she said.

Since her childhood, Kusama had recurring hallucinations. A portrait of her mother that she drew when she was 10 years old shows a forlorn face covered with spots. Immersing herself in her art was a way of overcoming her fears and hallucinations. Since her return to Japan in the 1970s, Kusama has lived in a psychiatric hospital and remains on medication to prevent depression and suicidal drives. But she commutes daily to her studio and works viciously on her paintings.

Yayoi Kusama’s Life

The forth and youngest child, Kusama was born in 1929 and grew up in a middle-class family in Japan in Matsumoto, Nagano prefecture. Her childhood in wartime Japan left her psychologically scared. Her father was never home and her mother was so critical of her individualism and ambitions she tore up Kusama's paintings and drawings. From time to time Kusama had hallucinations of room-consuming flowers and other horrors. Her parents ran a flower nursery and were more interested in her getting married than becoming a painter. They wanted to buy her kimono, not paints and brushes. Her response was running away to America. When Kusama arrived in New York in 1958, the fad was "action painting," characterized by dribbles, swooshes and smears, not dots. She suffered years of poverty and obscurity. But she kept painting the dots. [Source: Yuri Kageyama, September 8, 2012]

Between 1958 and 1972, Kusama lived in New York, mostly on the edge of poverty. She was friends with Georgia O'Keefe, Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and had numerous lovers but was considered by some members of the New York scene to be "too beautiful, too crazy, too powerful."

For her art Kusama often drew directly on her childhood hallucinations, most notably her “infinity nets” — fields of polka dots. She once said, "I wanted to pursue art to cure my mental illness...If it were not for art, I would have killed myself long ago." Her anxieties and neurosis forced her to leave New York, and since 1977, she has voluntarily resided in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital, where she has continued to work.

Kusama, who has also made films and published several novels, acknowledged she doesn't know where she gets her ideas. She just picks up her brush and starts drawing. "I think, 'Oh, I drew that? I was thinking that,'" she said in her characteristic unsmiling matter-of-fact style of speaking.

In 2012, Kusama turned 83. According to AP she looked much younger than her age, showing up for an interview in a bright red wig, a polka dot dress she designed herself and one of the new Louis Vuitton polka dot scarves.

Yayoi Kusama's Art

In the 1960s, Kusama did body painting pieces; organized hippie happenings, orgies and a Wall Street nude-in; had herself photographed nude and covered with polka-dots on a couch; and founded a pornographic tabloid called “Kusama Orgy”. She placed soft sponge-like phalluses on many objects — armchairs, tables and high heeled shoes. Her most famous work is a rowboat and oars covered with purple phalluses.

Over the years Kusuma has produced hundreds of paintings and sculptures and 12 books of fiction and poetry. Although she was shunned in Japan in the 1960s and 70s, she is now regarded as one of Japan's greatest living artists, and now makes enough money from her work to pay her hospital bills.

Yuri Kageyama of AP wrote: Over the years, Kusama has made quirky but stunning works like "Macaroni Girl," a female figure plastered with macaroni, which expresses the fear of food; "The Visionary Flowers," giant sculptures of twisting tulips, and "Mirrored Corridor," a room with mirrors that delivers an illusion of a field of phallic protrusions speckled with dots. The works are triumphant, humorous celebrations of potential, vulnerability and defiance — like Kusama herself, who at one moment, declares herself "an artistic revolutionary," and then, the next, mumbles: "I am so afraid, all the time, of everything.”

Her latest project is an ambitious series of paintings with whimsical motifs such as triangles and swirls, along with her trademark dots, in vibrant, almost fluorescent colors. As Kusama worked on No. 196 in the series, the look of concentration was childlike yet fierce as she painted red dots inside white dots, one by one. "I want to create a thousand paintings, maybe two thousand paintings, as many as I can draw," she said. "I will keep painting until I die.”

Yayoi Kusama and Polka Dots and Louis Vuitton

“Kusamatrix” is an entire room of white and red polka dots on a red and orange background made up of paintings, balloons and mirrors. Yuri Kageyama of AP wrote: Polka dots are... Kusama's lifelong inspiration, obsession and passion. And so they're everywhere — not only on canvases but on installations shaped like gnarled tentacles and oversized yellow pumpkins. As part of her retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, they also sparkle as "firefly" light bulbs reflected on water and mirrors. Kusama's signature splash of dots has now arrived in the realm of fashion in a collection from French luxury brand Louis Vuitton — bags, sunglasses, shoes and coats. [Source: Yuri Kageyama, September 8, 2012]

Dots started popping up in Kusama's work more than 50 years ago, from her early days as a pioneer Japanese woman venturing abroad. "Polka dots are fabulous," Kusama told AP in her Tokyo studio, filled with wall-sized paintings throbbing with her repetitive dots,

Kusama has designed polka dot scarves for Louis Vuitton. She said the collaboration was a natural, developed from her friendship with Louis Vuitton creative director Marc Jacobs. Kageyama of AP wrote: “Louis Vuitton had already scored success 10 years ago by collaborating on a bag line with another Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami. The latest Kusama collection is showcased at its boutiques around the world, including New York, Paris, Tokyo and Singapore, sometimes with replica dolls of Kusama. "The polka dots cover the products infinitely," said Louis Vuitton, which racks up 24 billion euros ($29 billion) in annual revenue, a significant portion in Japan. "No middle, no beginning and no end.”

Isamu Noguchi

Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi(1904-1988) liked art that served a purpose. His works include the fountains at the Osaka Expo (1970), the landscaping of the Phillip A. Hart Plaza in Detroit (1955) and his interlocking sculptures made with wood, slate and marble in his New York studio.

The son of Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi and American writer Leonie Gilmour, he was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Japan and attended boarding school in the United States. In the United States he studied the U.S. sculptor Gutzon Borghum, the creator of Mt. Rushmore. In Paris he studied under great Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

Noguchi won fame in France and the United States after World War II. Some of his most famous works were lanterns made with bamboo and paper. He had a great influence on the Japanese architects Kenzo Tange and Yoshiro Taniguchi.

Noguchi loved traditional Zen gardens. He once said, “In Japan, the rocks in the garden are so planted to suggest a protuberance from the primordial mass below. Every rock gains enormous weight, and that is why the whole garden may be said to be a sculpture, whose roots are joined way below.”

Isamu Noguchi’s Mother

Isamu Noguchi
Leonie Gilmore was the subject of a 2010 film “ Leonie “, in which she is played by Emily Mortimer.

Leonie Gilmore attended prestigious Bryn Mawr, where she one-ups her male art professor, before brushing off an admirer who wants to befriend the brash young woman. After graduation, she answers an advertisement for an editor for Yone Noguchi, a Japanese poet living in New York. With Leonie's help, Noguchi's poetry and other writings get published and begin causing a stir in both the United States and Britain. When Leonie discovers she is pregnant with Noguchi's child, he flees back to Japan, where he marries another, more traditional woman. [Source: Cristoph Mark, Daily Yomiuri, November 19,2010]

Leonie returned to California to live at a commune with her mother, where she gives birth to a young boy who goes for three years without a name before taking him to Japan to find his reluctant father as anti-Japanese sentiment swells in the United States.

"She wouldn't allow anyone to give him a name, it's so bizarre. The love she felt for Yone — and the work they did together, as much as for the man himself — I think that was the defining factor of her life," Mortimer says. "It led to her becoming pregnant, it led her to come to Japan, it led to her not being able to leave Japan until years after the fact. She was still crazy about him, and love makes you behave in strange ways. I think she was ferociously in love, even though it pained her to admit it at times."


Contemporary artist Pyuupiru is known for her flamboyant persona and self-made costumes that first made a splash in the late '90s club scene. Since then, she has reinvented both her life and her body, and is now internationally feted as an art-world phenomenon. The Tokyo-born artist's success was born male, first experienced gender discomfort as a primary school student when she was ruthlessly bullied and once even buried in mud. [Source: Mutsumi Morita, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 27, 2011]

Her life changed when she was 18 and discovered the clubbing scene."I didn't know that kind of world existed," she told the Yomiuri Shimbun. "Dress codes and mores were totally free--it felt like heaven." Pyuupiru initially wore off-the-rack fashions when clubbing. But in 1997, in a desire to stand out, she gradually started wearing self-made outfits that included creations such as full-body tights, an ostrichlike get-up and an "ambulance" costume topped off with a flashing red lamp-cum-hat.

In 2003, Pyuupiru had first solo art exhibition "PLANETARIA." Featuring nine hand-knitted striped costumes designed to encompass the whole body, the project consumed 3-1/2 years of her life. Pyuupiru's efforts paid off though, as symbolized by the huge line that snaked around the venue for the opening-night party.

"It moved me to tears to have so many people seriously contemplating the creations I'd labored over for so long," she told the Yomiuri Shimbun. "To have my work elicit reactions like “scary' and 'insane' was fantastic. Such remarks made me much happier than any of the compliments I received during my clubbing days about how cute I looked. I was going through a lot of pain [while working on 'PLANETARIA'] and often wanted to scream. I folded such sentiments into my work stitch by stitch and think I was able to convey those feelings."

In 2005, Pyuupiru's work featured in the Yokohama Triennale contemporary art event. Her work has also graced contemporary art galleries including the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in The Netherlands, The Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei in Taiwan and The Benaki Museum in Athens. Pyuupiru has also been featured in magazines in the United States, Italy and Spain.

As her income and fame grew Pyuupiru underwent radical cosmetic surgery and hormone injections: In 2005, the artist was castrated, followed by gender reassignment surgery two years later. In 2008, Pyuupiru's family register was amended to officially recognize her female gender. Pyuupiru has been completely open about such events, detailing her experiences on her blog and replying candidly to interviewers' questions.

Taro Okamoto

Okamoto Taro spent his career defying conventional thought. Yet the focus tends to be on Okamoto's eccentric behavior rather than his artwork. Among his best-known works are the Tower of the Sun, which he created for the 1970 Japan World Exposition in Osaka. [Source: Kumi Matsumaru, Daily Yomiuri, April 1, 2011]

Tohru Matsumoto a vice director of a museum that exhibited his art described Okamoto as a trickster who always sought out new approaches when something would get in the way of his goal. His earliest works are Picassoesque paintings produced after moving to Paris in 1930. After spending time as both soldier and prisoner, he returned to Japan in 1946. The following year, he launched a new art movement with other artists that focused on expressing contradictions within society. In 1950, he painted Law of the Jungle, in which humans and animals seem to be on the run as a ferocious animal rampages through an otherwise peaceful forest.

Tower of the Sun, the powerful monument, originally stood at the center of a hall designed by architect Kenzo Tange. It was built in defiance of the expo's theme, "Progress and Harmony for Mankind." In an interview in 1969 — the year prior to the Expo — Okamoto said that he was actually against the idea of progress and harmony, saying instead that opposing forces would be better at bring about a far more advanced unification. At the same time he was working on the expo monument, Okamoto was making a giant wall painting for the lobby of a Mexican hotel (Tomorrow's Mythology. 1968) and other war-themed works that express his own experience. The painting is believed to strongly reflect the difficult experiences he had as both a soldier and prisoner.

Though he is best known for his fine art, Okamoto also tried to make his work available to the masses by designing a number of commercial products, including furniture and tableware. This might have been his way of confronting either mass consumption or the rather closed art world. In the final years of his life he spent much of his time painting eyes, as if trying to clarify to himself something he had been looking at for all his life.

Misaki Kihara's Gaudy, Noble Animals

Misaki Kihara is famous for her gaudy, noble animals. "I wanted to give animals personalities as I painted them. But that's a well-worn idea, so I needed to express it in a way that only I could," she told the Daily Yomiuri. "Giving them glitzy decorations has become my own distinctive way." [Source: Kumi Matsumaru, Daily Yomiuri, January 21, 2011]

Describing a couple of Kihara’s paintings Kumi Matsumaru wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Clad in a deep red robe with golden embroidery, a leopard with a golden headpiece gazes solemnly at the viewer in Ogon no Jikan (Golden time). Holding a fresh daisy in its spotted paw, the serene feline appears to be regally giving an audience to someone. In contrast, a cow boldly sticks out its tongue, startling and amusing viewers, in Eraiwakedewa Naikeredo, Imawa Nandaka Sonna Kibun (I'm not a great man or anything, but I feel like one). Wearing a noble violet gown adorned with a pure white lace collar and an arched golden headdress studded with jewels, the cow stares at the viewer while holding a bulbous, bright red, cartoon-style mushroom in its hoof.

"I've always liked animals. They've been part of my life since I was small, as I grew up at the foot of the mountains in Yamagata Prefecture," Kihara recently told The Daily Yomiuri. "I used to paint two-headed human figures, but I began doing gorgeous animals around 2009." Kihara's art career got a boost when she decided to enter a competition organized by the bimonthly publication Illustration after hearing the judge would be Akira Uno, a veteran graphic artist, illustrator and painter she admires.

According to Kihara, who works on her own paintings when not otherwise occupied by her job at an art university, she starts a portrait with the background and then paints the animal's eyes. "Once I've completed the eyes, my energy rises. Then I can work on the other parts," she said. For metallic elements such as necklaces and head decorations, Kihara uses real metal items, such as parts of earrings she buys especially for the purpose. She also uses real material when it comes to lace, carefully choosing and cutting just the right swatches. She sometimes uses pressed real flowers as well. Kihara said wherever she goes, she is constantly on the lookout for suitable materials for her paintings. Since Kihara uses different kinds of acrylic paints, she applies a gloss varnish before completing her paintings, which gives them a uniform shiny finish.

Other Japanese Modern Artists

Nobuo Sekine was one of the founders of “Mono-ha” (“School of Things”) movement of the late 1960s which was strongly influenced by the mathematical field of topology. He won prizes at the Paris Biennial in 1960 and Venice Biennial in 1970. One award was given for “Phase: Mother Earth”, a piece comprised of a hole in the ground, with the dirt excavated from it in neat pile next to the hole. Another famous work featured a large boulder set on top of a mirror-finish stainless steel column. His two-dimensional works have three-dimensional qualities,

Other respected modern artists include Natsunosuke Mise, whose paintings explore new forms of expression that reflect established Japanese styles; and Tabaimo, whose work was featured at the the Venice Biennale in 2011. Tabaimo’s “colorful, cartoon-style ukiyo-e prints depict the agonies of the human world.” Chiho Akama is known for making shoes that resemble insects, sushi pieces and other objects made from pastry wafers and candy.

Shinro Ohtake is known as one of Japan most prolific artists. His works include paintings, sculpture, collage, video, scrap books, ready-mades and even musical compositions. The artist estimates that he has produced more than 20,000 works, most of which have never been shown. His most famous works are his Warhol-influenced “New Painting” portraits.

Taro Okamoto is one of Japan’s most celebrated modern artists. He designed the ugly and infamous “Tower of the Sun” for the 1970 Osaka Expo and produced some equally hideous massive abstract painting.

Noburu Tsubaki is known for making works of art with an anti-war theme. One of his most striking works, Tetsuo the giant robot bear emits ear-splitting noises and swallows a chunk of iron that symbolizes uranium. Other images include a peacekeeper with tank tied across his back and a floating sailor.

The artist Yoshihinko Wada was given a major award from the Japanese Culture Affairs Agency and then accused of plagiarizing the work of the Italian painter Albert Sughi. Kaii Higashiyama is a landscape painter honored by a United Nations exhibit in New York. Ushio Shinohara is known for his boxing paintings, which he made wearing swimming goggles and paint-dipped boxing gloves, while in his seventies.

Roger Shimomura, a third generation Japanese-American born in Seattle in 1939, is known for combining Roy Lichtenstein pop art withe traditional Japanese ukiyoe. Jason Teraoka, a forth generation Japanese-American born in Hawaii in 1964, is known for his bizarre paintings, featuring devils, Frankenstein and men with axes on their head. One of his most well-known works depicts a boxing match between Jesus and Satan. Another shows a man with dog shit in his hair.

Kazuhiko Hachiya is an artist who mixes art with aeronautical engineering to produce real aircraft and gliders that resemble flying machines in Hayao Miyazaki films. Several of his flying machines have been test flown. The M-02 looks like a cross between an ultralight and a stork. The pilot lies in prone position above the 75-kilogram engine, The body and wings weigh 66 kilograms. Observers can a feel of what it is like to fly them using a flight simulator called “OpenSky 2.0".

Yoshitomo Nara is famous for his doe-eyed figures. In November 2009, one his paintings (“Runaway Baby”) was sold for $434,500 at a Christies auction in New York.

Shinichi Sawada in is an artist from Shiga Prefecture that is autistic. He produces sculptures from clay filled with demons, dragons, other imaginary creatures and lots of small details. He has won awards in Japan and has had his work featured at galleries in Europe.

Japanese Performance Art

Japan has a tradition of performance art that arguably began with Yoko Ono. Among those that are well-known today are Takayuki Yamamoto, who does videos in which people are encouraged to do things like smoke in non-smoking areas and drive even though they don’t have a licence; and Yasumasa Morimura, who is famous for photographing himself impersonating movie stars like Marilyn Monroe, Liza Minelli ad Audrey Hepburn and superimposing his face into masterpieces by van Gogh and Rembrandt and Frida Kahlo.

Mariko Moru isa media-artist and former model who appears in her own videos as a Buddhist goddess in front of crowd of aliens. Ken Kageshima produces structures made of chopstick pyramids bound together with rubber bands with volunteers outside specific places such as auction houses.

Isozaki Michiyoshi has done a series of videos in which is dressed like a mop. He told the Times of London, “I think a mop’s life and that of a human are very close to each other. A mop, which is white and bright at the beginning, will be soiled by soaking up many things and give off a bad smell. Sometimes, it is hated more than rubbish and is thrown away. I found this process and that of a human’s growth very much alike.”

The Japanese performance artist Tomoko Takahashi was paid $9,000 of British taxpayer money to drink 48 cans of lager and then fall off a wooden beam at the Chapter Arts Center in Cardiff. In the three-hour show Takahashi, dressed in a black suit and high heels, drank the beer from a bag suspended from the ceiling, and then repeatedly tried to walk on a beam 60 centimeters off the floor. She failed to drink the 48 cans of beer and said the work was a “comment on the availability and use of mass-produced products.” The fifty people who watched the show were mostly confused. A local politician dubbed the performance as “the most stupid in the world” and called it the “biggest waste of money in the world.”

Takahashi was born Tokyo in 1966 and has lived in London since 1990. He was nominated for the 2000 Turner Prize for his installations of rubbish. A show at the Serpentine Gallery in London called “my play-station at serpentine 2005" consisted a rooms full of rubbish, consisting of 7,600 objects that she retrieved mostly from garage dumps, charity shops and schools. For one day the general public was allowed into the gallery and welcomed to haul away anything they like.

One Japanese artist made of a replica of “Mona Lisa “with 63 pieces of toast. A Japanese sculptor one made a likeness of himself with own hair and fingernails. Another Japanese artist is famous for fashioning a wide variety of beautiful objects from pieces on onions.

Modern Art in Japan in 2012

In a review of art in 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “After last year's tragic earthquake and tsunami, many artists took up the subject in their work, and several exhibitions associated with the disaster were held this year. Among them were 3.11 to Artist: Shinkokei no Kiroku (Artists and the Disaster: Documentation in Progress) at Art Tower Mito in Mito, and Tsukurukoto ga Ikirukoto (Making is Living) at 3331 Arts Chiyoda in Tokyo. Last year's disaster was followed by an especially large outpouring of creative activities, partly because more artists are using their work to stimulate communication. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 28, 2012]

The fifth Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale was held this year in Tokamachi and Tsunan, Niigata Prefecture, with about 360 pieces on display. This year's event attracted 490,000 people, the largest ever, and sold about 63,000 admission passports. The outdoor exhibition, meant to revitalize the sparsely populated area, has grown into one of the largest in scale in the world.

An exhibition on Yayoi Kusama made its way around the world from last year to this year. Her solo show is passing through Japan. Kusama-designed bags for Louis Vuitton bearing her characteristic polka dots triggered a global Kusama boom. Takashi Murakami held a solo exhibition in Doha, the highlight of which was his 100-meter-wide Arhat Painting depicting many grotesque Buddhist monks. A large exhibition of the work of Yoshitomo Nara toured Japan for the first time in 11 years. Finally, a museum housing about 3,000 pieces by Tadanori Yokoo opened in Kobe.

Japanese Photographers

Renjo Shimooka (1823-1914) and Hokoma Ueno (1838-1904) are considered the founders of photography in Japan. Shimooka produced extraordinary hand-colored photographs of sumo wrestlers, tattooed men, geisha, silk spinners, samurai, performing monkeys, basket makers, and common peddlers around the turn of the 20th century.

Soichi Sunami made brilliant portraits of celebrities like Martha Graham in the 1920s. Kenro Izu is famous for taking a massive large format cameras to far flung places and is best known for his series Sacred Places, which featured serene images of famous places such as Angkor Wat, Stonehenge, Easter Island, Lhasa and Borobudur Izu was good friends with another great Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, known for his photographs of famous modernist architecture. .

Daido Moriyama (1938- )is a Japanese photographer known for producing dark, disturbing, often, blurry images. His most famous photograph, Stray Dog (1971), features a menacing-looking dog. “Matsushima City, Miyagi Prefecture” (1974) featuring a menacing-looking, alien-like little boy with whited out eyes. Eschewing conventional techniques, he liked to wander urban landscapes and shoot from the hip, while running or in moving car or through fences or windows or scratched lenses. He liked images that were out of focus and marred by dirt and light flares.

Nobuyoshi Araki is one of Japan’s most famous living artists. He sometimes introduced himself as a genius and is best known for his nudes and sexual-themed images, many of them with his wife Yoko. Energetic and driven, he sleeps only three or four hours a night, shoots 40 rolls a day and has produced 300 photography books. Four or five shows of his work are shown every year in Japan.

Eikoh Hosoe (1933- ) is most famous for his photographs the finely chiseled and muscled writer Yukio Mishima, and Tatsumi Hijikata, the creator of the butoh form of dance in the 1950s and 60s. He collaborated with Ansel Adams on shots of nudes in beautiful natural surroundings.

Watanabe Katsumi is known for his photographs of city and street life., which includes imaged of prostitutes and gangsters in Tokyo and Deborah Harry chatting with David Bowie in New York.

Japanese Design

Japan has a reputation for copying things and making them better. The religious scholar G. Bownas wrote: “Throughout their history, the Japanese have been imitative, yet, in their way, not uninventive; they have often applied strokes of inventive genius to transform what they have borrowed, thereby producing something eminently suited to the new environment, something that is very much more than the mere sum of the borrowed components.”

Design has been a big part of the success of Japanese products. "By the yardstick of sales," wrote Benjamin Forgey in the Washington Post, "the most widely appreciated of Japan's design attributes is this genius for making small beautiful things. Derived from the need for compact living spaces on a densely populated, mountainous island (and who knows what else), it is a gift heaven-sent for the information age: the world buys Japan's sophisticated little radios, televisions, telephones, cameras, calculators and computers." [Source: Benjamin Forgey, the Washington Post]

Muji (“no mark”) is a leader in design for everything from food to bicycle, It strived for a kind banality chic by designing products that the ultimate in simplicity and functionality. Inspired by C-ration boxes discarded by American GIs, Japan's foremost designer Yusaku Kamekura once said, "Displaying them on shelves, I felt as though a fresh air of civilization and culture was suddenly filling my room...I thought this civilization, this design."

Describing a Japanese-made travel pack he was given Benjamin Forgey of the Washington Post said: "The thing seemed perfect in it way, a Platonic miniature. The utensils — ruler, scissors, spool of transparent tape, stapler, glue container, razor cutter, tape measure — were satisfying to the eye and hand alike. About as long as my index finger, the scissors cut a precise edge. Scarcely bigger than a thumbnail, the stapler stapled."

Books: “Japan Design” by Sarah Lonsdale (Carlton, 2001), an interesting survey of traditions and recent trends in architecture, packaging, and gadgets; “Origins: The Creative Spark Behind Japan’s Best Product Designs” bu Shu Hagiwara (Kodasha International, 2007); “Design Japan: 50 Creative Years with the Good Design Awards” by Japan Industrial Design (Stone Bridge Press, 2007).

Rice Paddy Art in Japan

Reporting from Inakadate, Martin Fackler wrote in New York Times Japan, “Nearly two decades ago, Koichi Hanada, a clerk in the village hall, received an unusual request from his superior: find a way to bring tourists to this small community in rural northern Japan, which has rice paddies and apple orchards, but not much else. Mr. Hanada, a taciturn but conscientious man, said he had spent months racking his brain. Then, one day he saw schoolchildren planting a rice paddy as a class project. They used two varieties of rice plants, one with dark purplish stalks and the other bright green ones. Then it struck him, why not plant the colored varieties in such a way as to form words and pictures?” “I didn’t know it would become such a hit,” he said. [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, July 25, 2010]

“The result was what is now called paddy art, and it has put this village on the map. Every year since 1993, villagers have created pictures by using rice paddies as their canvas and living plants as their paint and brush. As the village’s creations have grown increasingly large, complex and polychrome, they have drawn growing media attention and hordes of the curious. Last year, more than 170,000 visitors clogged the narrow streets of this quiet community of 8,450 mostly older residents, causing traffic jams and waiting for hours to see the living art.

“Indeed, the images may be possible only in Japan, as the product of an amalgam of high technology, painstaking perfectionism and an ancient attachment to rice. To create this year’s football field-size picture of a samurai battling a warrior monk, villagers used a computer model to place more than 8,000 stakes to guide them in planting rice plants genetically engineered to produce three more colors: dark red, yellow and white.”

“The images have become so detailed that the mayor, Koyu Suzuki, says visitors often ask if they are drawn on the paddies with paints. He said that it was the surprise factor that brought people here, and that the villagers believed they must produce ever more intricate pictures for tourists to keep coming back.”

Making the Rice Paddy Art

“On a recent afternoon, throngs crowded an observation deck at the top of the village hall, which is built in the shape of a medieval Japanese castle, to see the paddy art below,” Martin Fackler wrote in New York Times Japan, “Most praised Inakadate for its ingenuity. Volunteers plant and maintain the paddies. In the spring, about 1,200 villagers turned up to plant the half-dozen paddies for this year’s spectacle. That is a far cry from the first art in 1993, when Mr. Hanada and 20 fellow workers from the village hall made a simple, two-colored design representing a nearby mountain.” [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, July 25, 2010]

“Along the way, the project has learned from its mistakes. In 2003, a picture of the Mona Lisa ended up looking pregnant, Mayor Suzuki said, because she was too narrow at the top and bloated at the bottom. To correct the sense of perspective, the villagers asked a teacher here to use a computer to map out where to plant stalks so the pictures would have proper proportions when viewed from atop village hall.”

“The village has also spawned imitators. At least a half-dozen other communities across Japan now create pictures in paddies, though none seem as intricate. Feeling that they have been left to fend for themselves by Tokyo’s spending cuts, villagers say they must find ways to capitalize on the influx of visitors. Yozo Kikuchi, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, says the village must develop new souvenirs. True to form in Japan, they include a cute mascot, a smiling grain of rice named Little Mr. Rice-Rice.”

“The mayor has grander plans. He envisions increasing the number of paddy art sites and building new facilities for visitors, including possibly a flower-lined road, to turn Inakadate into an “art village.” “We used to treat economic benefits as an afterthought,” said Eiji Kudo, head of the village council. “Now we realize how important they are.”

Rice Paddy Art as a Means of Bringing a Village Back to Life

Martin Fackler wrote in New York Times Japan, “Residents of Inakadate (pronounced ee-NAH-kah-dah-tay) hope the paddy art will revitalize their declining village. Like much of rural Japan, the village has fallen on hard times from a shrinking population, a crushing debt load and declining revenues from agriculture.” [Source: Martin Fackler, New York Times, July 25, 2010]

“We have no sea and no mountains, but what we do have plenty of is rice,” Mr. Suzuki, 70, told the New York Times. “We have to create a tourism industry using our own ingenuity. “So many things have gone wrong, but the paddy art lets the community feel together again,” said Kumiko Kudo, 73, who runs a noodle restaurant.

“But so far, the village has failed to turn its accomplishments on the rice paddies to its financial benefit,” fackler wrote. “The visitors who now flood the village during the summer growing season, when the rice stalks grow tall enough for the pictures to become visible, do not spend much.” “Tourists come, say how wonderful it is and then just leave,” said Katsuaki Fukushi, the head of the village hall’s economic section.

“Before the paddy art, the village’s only claim to fame was the discovery here in 1981 of the archaeological remains of 2,000-year-old rice paddies, making it one of the oldest rice-growing regions in sparsely populated northern Japan. The village tried to capitalize on the discovery by building a Neolithic-themed amusement park during the better economic times of the 1980s, when Tokyo showered regions with money for public works.”

“The public works spigot has since dried up, and the park now sits weed-filled and often empty. The park is one reason the village is now saddled with a debt of $106 million, three times as large as its total annual budget. Villagers say the less expensive paddy art is better suited to the current leaner era. The paddies cost just $35,000 per year to rent, plant and maintain. While the village does not charge visitors to see the paddy art, it does ask for donations, which last year brought in $70,000, more than enough to cover the costs.”

Image Sources: 1) Ray Kinnane 2) Murakami website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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